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Hot potato: Who will accept the keys to Pound’s police evidence room?

"Council, without taking into account responsibilities in maintaining a police department, has eliminated its police department," 

May 19, 2021

POUND — There were no takers on Wednesday for a court order to put Pound's police evidence room key in the custody of a Virginia law enforcement officer.

Wise County and Norton Common- wealth's Attorney Chuck Slemp III got the order from Wise County Circuit Court Judge John Kilgore on Wednesday after Pound's Town Council voted Tuesday night to disband its police department and dismiss furloughed Police Chief Tony Baker.

Slemp and Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Ken Lammers argued that existing state law requires that a county police department ceasing operations transfer custody of its records and evidence to that county's sheriff. A break in that chain of custody would affect several cases based on evidence in the town's evidence room, Slemp added.

Slemp first wanted Kilgore to order the town to hire an interim chief to oversee the evidence room. Kilgore said that would be forcing the town to re-establish the department after it voted to eliminate it.

Lammers said state law does not specify what to do when the police department is a town department, adding that law does specify holding of specific types of evidence such as test kits. In the case of a town police department, Lammers said, state law puts no obligation on a sheriff to take over that evidence.

"Council, without taking into account responsibilities in maintaining a police department, has eliminated its police department," Lammers said.

"Why isn't the sheriff holding the key?" Kilgore asked.

"The sheriff doesn't want it," Slemp said, adding that Sheriff Grant Kilgore told him that he does not have the resources to review and inventory the room's contents and records. Having the key in a law enforcement department's custody is critical to preserving chain of custody, he added.

Slemp said Virginia State Police First Sgt. Geoff Lewis with the VSP investigative office in Lebanon told him that he was not sure he could take custody of the records and evidence.

"You've already had a lapse in time," Kilgore said. "The status quo is history. The window is broken."

Town Attorney Charles Wright said the town still has a 60-day policing agreement in place with the county after it furloughed Baker and part-time officer Tim McAfee in April. County Attorney Karen Mullins said the agreement only covers policing in the town and not handling of the town evidence and records room.

Kilgore, first saying he was inclined to order the sheriff to take over custody, finally ordered that no non-law enforcement officer could take possession of evidence and records. He also ordered the town to have a Virginia law enforcement officer take control of records and evidence no later than 4 p.m. on Wednesday.

That did not happen.

Baker, who was not present at Wednesday's hearing, still held the department's evidence room keys and waited at Pound Town Hall from 4:00 p.m. to 4:45 p.m. with Wright and Town Manager Drew Mullins. Wright searched by phone for a police department willing to collect the keys from Baker, but the Wise and St. Paul police departments refused.

Baker told Mullins that he wanted to see the evidence preserved so victims in those cases would see justice.

Before leaving the town hall parking lot, Baker said he would return with the key if told a department would accept it.

Slemp said at about 6 p.m. that officials were still looking for an officer or agency willing to take the key.

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